The pitter patter of words making their way into my head has always soothed me. As a little girl, I’d beg my Austrian grandma to send stories marching into my brain as I fell asleep, and to this day I don’t sleep well unless I’ve first aligned my mind to that rhythm of words tap tap tapping their way in, quietening whatever other disorderly cacophony of crap is flying around.
That said, I sometimes find the newest page-turner just doesn’t stick in quite the same way a bloody good story told masterfully will. And while I enjoy the odd throwaway read as much as the next person (I have read The Da Vinci Code about five times – I’m truly not only one for the highbrow), I have a thing for a tale that embeds in my brain and becomes part of my mental landscape.
Here are thirteen that contain within their pages stories that have clung on and never left me //
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy / Jude is a working class man who’s desperate to go to Christminster (based on Oxford) to achieve the edified existence he feels the university’s stamp of approval will give him. During the course of the story, he falls in love with his cousin. All his aspirations crumble to dust, and Hardy documents his downfall unflinchingly.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski / A woman falls asleep on an antique chaise-longue and wakes to find herself trapped in a consumptive body in the Victorian era. No explanation is given, no magic potion to transport her back. The book plays out from there. It’s horrifying and completely brilliant.
The Man of Feeling by Henry MacKenzie / This book by MacKenzie thoroughly undoes the idea that men of history were all stoic and reluctant to show emotion. It is entirely the other way round; in 18th century England, crying openly was considered to be a show of masculinity, and the subject of this book basically goes around London weeping and wailing at anything and everything. It’s oddly compelling.
La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe / Every single page of this book crawled under my skin. The completely subservience and obsession Elisa feels for her husband makes for a very uncomfortable read (this always stuck: ‘Although Elisa may seem to be the perfect mother, the love she bears for her issue does not spring from a maternalism of the heart or flesh. Children, for her, are the natural extension of the love she feels for her man, issue of his flesh, occupants of his home, their full value contained only in the shining light of that love’). It all goes terribly wrong for Elisa when he cheats on her with her sister and my heart broke as her fate was revealed.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin / 19th century readers were stunned by this story and I was a bit blindsided by it too mostly because of how the protagonist, Edna, goes from happy housewife to completely disillusioned with her life. She makes changes, but at a high price. The ending will shock you.
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski / A man returns after WW2 to find his 5-year-old son – only he isn’t sure that the boy he retrieves really is his. And, if it is or isn’t, he doesn’t know if he actually wants the boy. Very sad, very haunting.
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch / I’ve written about this before so won’t go into depth. Suffice to say I’ve recommended Charles Arrowby’s odd tale of obsession and messy friendships and trying to rebuild a life by the sea to many people, all of whom have adopted it as one of their favourites.
The Double by Jose Saramago / A man watching a film realises that one of the actors is his facsimile. He becomes obsessed with the idea of this other man who is his exact physical likeness, and then comes to the conclusion that there must be some glitch in nature to allow the two to live concurrently. Perhaps, he thinks, one should die…
Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon / Not fiction, but really it might as well be – the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley are just astounding. Wollstonecraft is generally considered the first feminist and wrote a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Women that is pretty brilliant but a bit like wading through treacle (this book summarises it’s sentiments nicely). She had one child out of wedlock then another once married to William Godwin after deciding that the shame conferred on a child born out of wedlock wasn’t ideal. That child would later become Mary Shelley, whose life involved running off with the married Percy Shelley and living in some extraordinarily unorthodox ways. This book tells their tales.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter / These dark, sexy, subversive takes on classic fairy tales are completely genius and you will be into them if you love creepy films and psychological thrillers.
Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe / Bourdouxhe is a fantastic writer of inner life, and this story of a women who has an affair bears testament to that. I loved this passage in particular: ‘love operates according to the pulse of time, just like everything else that lives. It asserts itself or disintegrates, it goes into decline, recovers its strength. If it’s alive, then it can die – and that is beautiful in itself. Nothing can ever be important or have the power to move unless it contains within itself the possibility of death.’
The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig / If I could send one book out of the screen and into your hands, this would be it. An anti-Cinderella tale, Christine is scooped up from abject poverty to spend time with her wealthy aunt, before being thrown back when she poses a risk to her benefactor’s social status. She then tries to adjust, but comparison robs her of her ability to cope. It’s completely tragic and profoundly beautifully written.
The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth / This isn’t a story per se, but I loved it so much I wanted to include it. If improving your turn of phrase appeals, this book is possibly the best thing you could pick up. Chapter by chapter, Mark wittily unpicks how certain tools improve the flow of a sentence. That he manages to make such a topic eminently readable and entertaining rather proves his methods work.